A driving summer rain rousts us from bed at 2am on Wednesday. It snuffs the fireflies’ lanterns, plunging our twinkling hilltop into darkness as Bob and I scramble to close the windows around the house. He settles back to sleep within seconds. I’m wide awake, fretting about the future of our children.
In the course of four months I’ve gone from a mother of two to a mother of three (Corey has decided not to return home). And in that time my children have been asked to metamorphose into full working partners on the farm. Saoirse, 16, and Corey, 18, draw full time pay and shoulder the same responsibilities as all the adults who’ve ever preceded them. Ula, 13, is not yet old enough to legally work. So she helps Grammie around the house, assists with chores, and tends a flock of bottle lambs when she isn’t working with me in the cafe. When she isn’t doing that, she’s applying her powerful intuition to helping all of us see through to each others’ hearts, to make clearer decisions, to push us through the emotional struggles that are inevitable enough on a family farm without a pandemic. One day last week, sensing her exhaustion, I keep her at home.
We eat chicken salad on the patio while she tells me the fate of Luna, one of the favored gilts who failed to breed this year. Ula talks about the way Luna’s ears flop over her eyes, about how she lets the kids climb on her back and nestle up against all five hundred pounds of her. Because she didn’t give birth to a litter of piglets, she will go for sausage soon.
I wince as Ula’s tale unfolds.
“It’s the way it is, Mom,” Ula peers at me intently as she takes another helping of chicken salad (my, how they do put away the food these days). “It’s sad, but you can’t have a pig that size hanging around like a pet.”
Later that night, before heading off to watch movies with Corey, the girls climb upstairs to crawl into bed with me to play with the cats and talk. Saoirse, my fashion maven who devotes hours to reflecting on how hairstyles, fabric and drape change across history and fantasy realms, sits on my bed, oblivious to her dirty socks, smeared knees, or the cuts and scrapes on her long tanned arms. She repeats the story of Luna. She is more troubled by it, allowing her tears to fall. “I love what I do,” she tells me, “so why does it have to feel like this?”
I have no answers. My only thoughts are, they’re too young for this. This pandemic has swept away the notion of summer camps and overseas adventures. Heck, it’s even obliterated trips to Albany. Weeks can go by before any of us even drives to town. We are all each others’ childhood and adulthood, swapping roles by the day, by the hour, by the minute.
I ask myself if I’m making a big mistake, if I’m forcing these children into roles that will squelch their fondness for the farm, drive them from this land for a life with cleaner fingernails, air conditioning, a swivel chair, fewer hours on their feet, a lot less sweat, unsoiled socks. I’m fearful that these months in the pandemic will make them hate this place, that they’re feeling robbed of the childhood they’d known up until a few weeks ago .
So last Sunday we threw our tents and sleeping bags in Ol’ blue, strapped the kayaks on top, and trundled one mile up the road, to one of our favorite spots beside a pond. We set up camp and hid away for 24 hours. We swam, cooked steak over the fire, paddled, feasted on s’mores. I had enough sense to suspend my worries and just enjoy the moments; to laugh with them, gape at the amount of food they can put away, to listen deeply to their thoughts and ideas. We scrambled into our tents and Bob took out his guitar and played quietly, lulling us off to sleep with a chorus of the bull frogs. I drifted off in bliss, thankful to have watched them be children once more.
But on Monday Bob and I are plunged back into the icy reality of managing a family business during a pandemic. The problems don’t stop, and the screaming demands for further adaptations require our entire family to think deeply about how we can give more, work harder, meet the next challenge. I try to keep my head in the game, to stay focused on making the next round of changes, to find the positive side to every problem.
As this rain pummels my roof at 2 am, I can tell that I’m getting so tired. And I hate to ask more of those children.
Yet they give. They bend. They adapt. And in their bending and adaptation, they remind me that I can do the same.
And one by one, each of them came to Bob and me in private. Each of them thanked us for taking them away for the day: for that one-mile-away stinking camping trip that lasted all of 24 hours. It wasn’t summer camp. It wasn’t an overseas adventure. I don’t think it can even qualify as a day out. But it was everything to them.
I push my fears away in favor of awe. In this time when I feel like they’re doing so much for us, each of these kids finds the time to stop and thank Bob and me for what we’re doing for them. In these hours when I am kept awake for fear that I’m pushing too hard and asking too much, they are sleeping deeply that they might face tomorrow and have more to give. There is no anger, no resentment. Only love.
These are the thoughts that finally let the muscles in my stomach soften, that let my lungs draw full breath once more. The rain stops briefly, and the fireflies re-ignite the front field in sparkling showers of light. And I am reminded that, in spite of what this farm asks of them, the growth and maturity of my children is not devoid of magic, even during these strange times. It is not what we endure, but how we care for each other as we grow through it, that will make the difference in our lives. I give thanks for the fireflies, and I go back to sleep.